Director Adam McKay’s Vice Presidential biopic follows The Big Short template with mixed success
As a nation the United States has been built through a series agreed-upon lies. According to Adam McKay’s new film, Vice, one of the biggest political deceptions what that Dick Cheney was ever second in command.
The shoot-from-the-hip, clumsy charms of George W. Bush’s administration hid nefarious dealings that went on behind closed doors, resulting in a trojan-horse leadership position for Cheney. The move was a clever gambit and one that brought about the current ideological stance the U.S. faces as a country. With his film Adam McKay pitches the merger of corporatism and Christian-conservatism as a comedy. With the sardonic wit he demonstrated with The Big Short is used again with diminishing returns; it seems blackly comedic retorts about toxic asset leveraging is easier to stomach than giggling at the the highly dubious abuses of power that took place for eight years in the highest office of the land.
McKay’s anger at the events enacted by Dick Cheney is warranted. If the thousands of death as the result of the Iraq War isn’t sufficient enough reason to get your blood boiling, one might question what will. But once the finger gets pointed at the audience for not caring enough about the consequences of events decades ago, Adam McKay starts losing them.
For McKay’s indignation to be credible, he’d have to avoid some of his own toothless critiques later in the film. The director starts off hot, going right after Cheney for his conduct in the hours after 9/11 when the towers fell. With George W. Bush circling in Air Force One, Cheney is seen arbitrarily authorizing new rules for enemy engagement despite having every other person in the room looking dumbfounded. Several points in Vice make no bones about the grift that financially profited both Dick and Lynne Cheney. Though that same righteous fury invites questions later on when the film heads toward a very satisfactory conclusion only to tack on another ending (yes, there are multiple) that completely unravels the momentum the film had. This may be fueled by a token effort at impartiality, though anyone expecting such from an Adam McKay production is likely misguided.
For that final scenes to have any emotional impact on the audience, Christian Bale has to be zeroed-in on the human behind the satirical target. His transformation is remarkable, and if he were any other actor, he’d likely receive a lot of recognition for the part. However, this is one of four or five physical transformations that Bale has already pulled off to great acclaim, so critics are less enthralled.
Bale does for Dick Cheney what George C. Scott did for Patton, for better and for worse. For those less in the know, Cheney wasn’t always a master strategist, he was a drunk layabout who eventually took over the White House, but not without significant assistance from Lynne Cheney. One of the biggest laughs in the film is when a younger, naive Dick asks Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), “what do we actually believe in?” and Rumsfeld responds by laughing hysterically and slamming the door in Cheney’s face.
Amy Adams won’t be the main focus of any tv spots as Lynne Cheney, but her frighteningly earnest portrayal is chilling. One could argue that Dick doesn’t necessarily believe half of what he sells, but Lynne is baptized in the waters of her actions. Without Adams as the Lady to Bale’s Macbeth, the film would be significantly worse. No less vital are Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell, as Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush, they are workhorses for most of the film’s comic relief. Both men add flair as over-the-top lackeys that wouldn’t feel out of place in Talladega Nights or Anchorman.
One critical moment finds both daughters pitted against each other, where Liz Cheney (Lily Rabe) uses the sexual orientation of Mary Cheney’s (Alison Pill) as a weapon to avoid her own liabilities . Their father’s dismay may prove he has a heart, metaphorically, but he created the rules of the game that allowed for this debacle.
Vice‘s biggest saving grace is the work by editor Hank Corwin whose kinetic sense of pacing is the film’s driving force, assisting McKay in interweaving informational exchanges into narratives. What causes Vice to stumble are the needless tricks that add up over the course of the film. Sometimes you have to “kill your babies” as a writer. As engaging as Amy Adams and Christian Bale are as the Cheneys, having them reenact Dick’s decision to be V.P. in Shakespearean prose could be cut forthright and nothing would be lost from the film. Satirical touches are to be expected – such as McKay offering a happier ending of Cheney’s story where he and Lynne retire from public life to raise golden retrievers – but these kind of excesses are not to be excused.
At times simplistic, and others bludgeoning in subtlety, Vice is more or less exactly the film that you’d think Adam McKay would make about Dick Cheney. But McKay does an admirable job eschewing the tropes of most biopics. And, if nothing else, Bale and Adams must be seen as Dick and Lynne Cheney. They’re phenomenal.